I wasn’t born knowing everything and we all learn things in our own time. One thing I wasn’t born knowing and had to learn along the way (while making plenty of mistakes) was how to save money while navigating undergrad.
College is expensive and the majority of students in the United States could use a little extra money in our bank accounts during those demanding years. If there’s one thing I disliked most about being a student, it was having to divert my attention from school work to the next term’s finances.
Since I can really only refer to my own (pre-COVID 19) experiences and observations as a student studying in the United States, some of these may not apply to your specific situation, but below are 16 strategies that helped me save money before and during my undergraduate program. I hope you find some of them useful.
If you have any additional tips you’d like to share, leave them in the comments so we can learn from more experiences!
- #1 – Get a part-time job
This is a pretty obvious one, but worth mentioning. In my own situation, I got a part time job while I was still in high school, worked full time for a few years, and then worked part-time during some of my time at university. It’s hard to save money if you don’t have a source of income!
- #2 – Remember, it’s not a race
This goes hand-in-hand with the above and below suggestions. It’s okay if you don’t start school at 18 and it’s okay if it takes you more than four years to get your Bachelor’s, etc.
In my particular situation, I commuted from about 2 hours away, which meant I spent about 4 hours driving each school day. This didn’t leave much time for a part-time job, so I chose to split my senior year into two years to allow more time to work.
I definitely had some insecurities and initial feelings of incompetence for not graduating “on time,” but I felt so much better slowing down my pace so I could devote an adequate amount of time to my classes while also earning some money. For me, the slower pace worked out for the best and I do not regret the decision.
- #3 – Take a gap year…or more
You know what costs a lot of money? Taking a term, semester, or year of classes, then switching your major only to have many of those classes not count toward your new major. Similar to the above strategy, it’s okay to take some time off between high school and college to experience life and the workforce. This time away from academia can potentially enable you to discover something you want to pursue at a college or university.
For me, starting undergrad at 25 years old had it’s positives and negatives, but ultimately I found I took it more seriously than I feel I would have at 18 because I was actually interested and driven to pursue a degree. I didn’t know what I wanted to study at 18 and really didn’t want to dig myself into debt trying to figure it out. Instead, I worked, saved some money, and found a career I was motivated to work toward.
If you’re not 100% certain, or maybe not even remotely sure what you want to get a degree in, then maybe reconsider attending or look into whether you can sample classes to see if they’d interest you enough to enroll. I think it’s important to normalize taking time off between high school and university, but remember it’s never too late to start. Life gets more complicated the longer you wait, but when there’s a will, there’s a way! Do it!
- #4 – Savings account and bonds
There are several methods for saving money for college that accumulate interest, but the ones I’m familiar with are savings accounts and savings bonds. Bonds mature in about 30 years from their date of purchase, so if you happen to be a parent reading this, buy your kid savings bonds while they’re still babies! My family bought my brother and I a few bonds and they definitely came in handy. The ones I had earned more interest than a standard savings account at a bank, so I definitely recommend them. If you’re reading this and you have savings bonds, hold onto them as long as you can so you can benefit most from the interest.
- #5 – Apply for financial aid and scholarships
It is without a doubt, time consuming to apply for financial aid, and honestly, I hate feeling like I’m begging for money. That being said, free money is free money. Apply, apply, apply!
Check emails, flyers, notices, etc. about different funding opportunities on your campus. I applied for funding that involved creating a research project and presenting it at a research fair. It was a great experience and I got paid to do it. Just apply. The worst they’ll say is “no.”
- #6 – Co-enroll at a community college
Stretch those scholarships/grants/funds out as much as possible and take some classes at community college! I was able to dual enroll so I could focus on my Bachelor’s while I was also earning an Associate’s in the background.
Cost will, of course, vary from school to school, but the community college I attended was ~$90 per credit hour versus the ~$240 per credit hour at my university. For example, a 4 credit hour course at the community college was $360. If I took that class at university it would have been $960!
- #7 – Wait to get married!
I got married while I was still in school and something I didn’t consider at the time was how that would affect my financial aid. After I filled out FAFSA the following year, I ended up losing a few federal grants that would have been QUITE helpful. Whoops!
- #8 – Subsidized loans only, if possible
If you have to take out loans, only take out subsidized loans, if you can. Subsidized loans don’t start accumulating interest until after you graduate. Unsubsidized loans accumulate interest as soon as you get them, so if you take out an unsubsidized loan your freshman year, expect a hefty load of interest by the time you graduate, and it keeps going up from there!
To give you an example, out of necessity I had to take out a $9,500 unsubsidized loan in October 2018. About 2 years later, in July 2020, the loan had accrued $470 in interest. I could have paid for an additional class at the community college with that money!
- #9 – Pay back loans immediately if you don’t need them
There was a term during my freshman year that I thought I would need to take out an unsubsidized loan (which happened to have an interest rate of 4.66%). After accepting it, I ended up not needing it, so I paid it back almost immediately. Since I paid it back within a certain window of time, any interest it had started to accumulate, was disregarded.
Sure, it would have been nice having a couple extra thousand dollars in my account to use for whatever, but this was my freshman year and I would have wracked up quite a bit in interest by the time I graduated 5 years later. Not worth it.
- #10 – Pay down loans with spare money
I learned this strategy from a girl in my undergraduate program. We were hanging out in her dorm and she mentioned she got some birthday money from family, had used some of it for herself, and then was using a portion of it to make a payment on her loan. I thought that was really smart. Every little chunk of cash you can throw at it along the way adds up!
- #11 – Cook meals in bulk
Eating out now and then is great, but cooking a large batch of something on the weekend is a time saver, and money saver. You could cook a large pot of chili, soup, stir-fry and rice, or something similar, portion it out into containers and you’ll be all set for the week’s lunches. Depending on what you make, you could freeze it and take it out for a dinner meal when you’re tired and don’t feel like cooking. This can be way cheaper than eating all your meals out and healthier than resorting to pre-packaged meals.
Let me know if you would like to see some of the bulk recipes I made while I was in school and I’ll work on putting some of those together for a future blog post or video.
The other thing I’ll say is I don’t blame you if you don’t want to eat the same thing every day or don’t want to cook for every meal, so treat yourself every now and then. Just work it into your budget.
- #12 – Create a budget
Speaking of working things into your budget – create a budget!
Creating a budget can help teach you responsibility, but guess what? You’re going to overspend on dumb sh!t sometimes. Acknowledging that it was dumb is part of growing and learning.
This isn’t really something I did in a structured way, but the generic budgeting I did, definitely aided me in establishing personal limits to non-essential spending as well as gave me a better gauge of where my finances were each term.
- #13 – Get a fuel efficient car
With the recent transition to primarily online/distance learning as a result of the pandemic, this may be applicable to very few people at the moment, but if you do eventually commute to school, and are purchasing a car for school, consider a fuel efficient car. When you’re in college, you don’t need your dream car, just something that (safely) gets you from point A to point B. Plus, you don’t want your dream car on a college campus – in my experience, many of them are 18-24 year olds and are not the greatest drivers.
Personally, due to my 4 hour daily commutes, I chose a gasoline Smart car and it got about 35-40 mpg. The vehicle I was driving previously got about 18-22 mpg so I would have spent more than twice as much on gas if I had stuck with my old vehicle.
- #14 – Cheap parking passes, carpool, park off campus
My university had different rates depending on how close the lot was to the heart of campus. Fortunately, I’m able-bodied and the extra walking was doable for me, so I bought the cheapest (about $100 yearly) pass for the furthest-away lot (the closer-in lots cost up to $520).
If you’re not parking on campus frequently, maybe daily passes would be a better option for you. Better yet, carpool with someone to split the cost. Or, depending on how your campus is designed, maybe you can (legally) park somewhere off campus and walk/bike/skate/etc. in.
- #15 – Schedule classes for less commuting
This is a tricky one that requires some Tetris skills. I’m naive to how the other degree programs and universities do things, but for my major, certain classes were only offered during one term per year on certain days of the week and were spread out between lectures, recitations, and seminars. For example, a required class may only be offered Fall term on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with a recitation on Tuesday or Thursday. Then another required class may only be offered Tuesday and Thursday of Fall term as well. In cases like this I had no choice but to commute daily.
Some terms I was able to schedule all my classes on Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday. I really didn’t like how my university scheduled some classes for 50 minutes at a time for 3 days. It may work for “traditional students” who live on or close to campus, but those of us living off campus, it would be more time and cost efficient to have the option to do one long lecture per week.
- #16 – Buy Old, Borrow, or Rent Textbooks
Acquiring textbooks was one of the things I was extremely frugal about. I usually waited to find out whether a textbook was required before I bought it. Sometimes professors would let us know if an older edition would be adequate or if there would be a copy on reserve in the library that we could check out for a couple hours.
If a new version of a text was required and it was super expensive, I would often rent a it for less than $100 to get me through the course (unless I needed it for multiple terms). After I graduated, if I really liked the book I would use Amazon or Ebay to purchase the edition that was out when I had taken that class because by the time I graduated many books had newer editions so the older edition I was familiar with was much cheaper).
Digital versions of textbooks are also an option and they are sometimes a little cheaper. I personally don’t like reading from a screen, but there are benefits – like not having to lug heavy physical books around, you can take notes on them, and use the search function to find things quickly.
I hope some of the strategies I used to conserve and save my money at university are helpful to you.
If you have some additional strategies of your own, leave them in the comments below so we can learn from your experiences as well!
If you’re heading off to school, good luck to you. Times are strange right now with distance-learning and social distancing, but you can do it!